Six years ago, Fedor Emelianenko was done, retiring after most of us knew it was time. After a career that had spanned a dozen years of greatness, that had seen him run through the largest and scariest men in mixed martial arts, often with barely a speck of trouble, Emelianenko was suddenly compromised, human, fallible. Time happens. He lost three fights in a row, then went on a three-fight victory tour of recognizable but past-their-prime opponents, then faded off into retirement.
The fight world exhaled. The end does not come quietly for most anyone, not in this sport, not even when you are one of the greatest to ever do it. When Emelianenko stepped away from the cage, it felt like the MMA gods had mostly spared him from indignity. Yes, he had been stopped a few times, but by Fabricio Werdum and Dan Henderson? They are two all-time greats. And Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva? He is almost literally a giant. Those losses could be excused, or at least explained away. Moreover, fans could rightfully feel that he’d walked away mostly intact. He had already given so much of himself; it was enough. He belonged to his family; his legacy belonged to history.
Yet here we are now, a half-dozen years later, and with Emelianenko threatening to add a final, improbable title to his sterling list of credentials. At 42, the Last Emperor is making a last stand.
The first days of his Bellator run held no such promise. In his first fight, in June 2017, he was knocked out by Matt Mitrione in just 74 seconds. Here we go again, we thought. This was not an excusable loss. Mitrione is a capable and dangerous heavyweight, but it was hard to imagine any other scenario in which Emelianenko would lose to him than this one. Could a prime Mitrione have starched a prime Fedor? Seems unlikely. This was equal parts Mitrione and time.
So it was with that backdrop that Emelianenko was entered into the Bellator heavyweight World Grand Prix, an event with a tournament field that included two former UFC champions, a former Strikeforce champ and the current Bellator light-heavyweight champion. It is the last of those, Ryan Bader, who stands as the last blockade between Emelianenko’s and a final major title, or who may close the door on his career for all time.
Emelianenko was a longshot to win the tournament since the day it was announced. He was given +600 odds at the start, behind pre-tourney favorite Mitrione, Bader and Frank Mir. He’s still on the wrong side of lopsided betting lines for Saturday’s Bellator 214 Grand Prix final; Bader is around -380 on most sports books.
It is, to be uncomfortably blunt, a fight that Emelianenko should not win. While he has clearly held on to his power, knocking out both Mir and Chael Sonnen in his two tournament fights, Bader is a durable fighter who has vastly improved his striking over time. While he was once somewhat robotic and stiff, Bader has refined his footwork, adding fluidity to his powerful shots. Couple that with his tenacious wrestling game, and Bader is a fully realized mixed martial artist. Emelianenko will have his hands full.
Yet whenever Emelianenko enters the cage, it’s fair to wonder what sorcery he is bringing with him. This is a man that was dumped on his head by Kevin Randleman, only to shuck it off and kimura him into submission moments later, who out-struck Mirko Cro Cop and toyed with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s guard when both of those beasts were in their primes. Is it impossible to think he can beat Ryan Bader?
Bader, after all, is the same man who was clipped and then choked out by Tito Ortiz at a time when it seemed Ortiz might not ever win again. He has been stopped by Anthony Johnson, Glover Teixiera and Lyoto Machida. He can be beaten.
Is an Emelianenko win truly feasible, or is it the past whispering to us? Logic tells us one thing, our memories (and maybe our hopes) try to cloud reason.
There is not a single champion in major MMA older than Emelianenko right now. Daniel Cormier, at 40, is the closest. Major MMA has not crowned a titleholder past the age of 40 since Randy Couture beat Tim Sylvia to capture the UFC Heavyweight championship at age 43.
This is the kind of history that Emelianenko is fighting. It’s not just Bader; it’s that the whole architecture of sports disdains age. That is magnified even further in combat sports, where experience collects uphill as a strength until it forces you off the other side of the mountain.
Six years ago, we thought we witnessed that very thing: the end. So what we may be seeing on Saturday night? It would be improbable, unlikely, implausible. In other words, so very Fedor.